What Václav Havel Meant to Me

While I cannot claim the privilege to have been one of Václav Havel’s friends, he loomed large in my life, first in my teenage years when I was coming of age in Communist Czechoslovakia and later through my extended sojourns abroad – in the United States and now in Poland. Václav Havel is profoundly irreplaceable. Together with millions of other Czechs, I owe him my freedom.

The season’s first snow was falling heavily last Sunday afternoon when I was making my way to Wrocław along winding, mountainous roads returning from my family house on the Czech side of the border. The going was very slow as the line of cars, mostly with Polish tags, headed back toward Poland after spending a weekend in the Czech mountains. My small son was sleeping in the back seat. In the quiet of the ride, I listened to Václav Havel’s voice recorded five years prior when he spoke on Czech National Radio about the place theater held in his life. Czech radio stations were responding to the news of the former President’s death with rebroadcasts of past interviews, as if they wanted to extend his presence among us.

In this moment of deep sadness when time seemed to have stopped altogether, my thoughts turned back to an important moment in my childhood. I must have been eleven when I decided to take part in a school recitation competition. To help me prepare, my mother taught me a poem by the Czech Nobel Prize laureate, Jaroslav Seifert. In the poem, Seifert commemorated the day when the first Czechoslovak President Tomáš Garyk Masaryk died. Masaryk, like Havel, died in early hours of the morning. The poem, which I still remember, is entitled, To kalné ráno – The Grey Morning. My mother read the poem out loud to me repeatedly until I knew the words by heart, stopping to take breaths before each softly sounding refrain: “Remember my child, that grey morning.” Thanks to Havel, I realize today that my mother’s choice of Seifert, an unpopular author with the Communist government, was an example of the power of the powerless, something my mother bestowed upon me along with a sense of agency, as I took the stage to read the verse publicly at a time when we lacked any hope that Communism would ever end. The atmosphere of Sunday afternoon of December 18, 2011 when I was driving back to Wroclaw and the mood reflected in Seifert’s poem about September 14, 1937, connected Masaryk and Havel – those two leaders of Czechoslovak democracy – at the moment of their passing and in my memories.

Havel as an absolute authority began to appear side by side with Masaryk in my family’s discourse and in my imagination even before 1989, when my parents discussed news of Havel’s imprisonment of which they had learned from foreign radio broadcasts. Later, Havel’s at first symbolic and then materialized leadership during the Velvet Revolution was something entirely and magically natural. That happened during my senior year of high school, at a time when I was still excited about being able to distribute illicitly his texts in our small mountain town. I met him the next spring by chance in a restaurant on the banks of the Vltava in Prague, where my sister had taken me for lunch after I successfully passed entrance exams to Charles University. Václav Havel was having a beer with his brother at a table in the corner of the small room and I remember how overwhelmed I became with a feeling of personal gratitude that on the very day that the doors to my university studies in the humanities opened up for me I met Havel. One year earlier it would have been an impossible goal to achieve due to my parents’ political incorrectness. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that it was Havel to whom I owed my freedom and the opportunity to be who I wanted to be, a privilege that my older sister, who never became the doctor that she deeply longed to be, never had.

When I left Czechoslovakia in 1992 to study and work in the United States, Havel continued to play an important role in my life. Almost everybody I met associated my Czechness with Havel and Prague:  my colleagues at the engineering company in Idaho, fishermen in Alaska and intellectuals in New York. In this way, Havel was becoming somebody in my life who allowed me to become conscious of my national identity. It was a complicated process for somebody who was brought up in a family that nurtured a historically grounded wariness of collective emotions, strengthened in my case through the cultural relativism that I learned in my anthropology studies at American universities.  But still, perhaps unconsciously, I have made decisions to remain Czech and maintain my Czech citizenship even when I had different, seemingly more attractive options. I realize now the key role played by Havel in this process of my national identification. Apart from my family, it was he who represented the only possible reference point for a feeling that I could call national pride.

When I arrived in Wrocław in 2003, Havel was no longer the Czech President. For me and my family, his departure from politics meant undeniably the end of decent politics (slušná politika). And the fact that our expectations were soon confirmed unfortunately came as no surprise for us. At a time when we have witnessed the release of banal private conflicts and interests played out in public and in the guise of public good, Havel seemed to be more appreciated outside of his own country. This was especially true in Poland where he had good friends and where he was always respected and admired. Looking from Poland at a time of the crisis of (post)modernity, I appreciated Havel’s larger European and global dimension. His words, through which he tried to return people and especially politicians to decency, no longer seemed directed only to the Czechs. Instead, they were calls to a broader audience for prudence in times of mad recklessness. But Havel’s voice was increasingly lonely in its moral determination. It seemed as if Havel’s politics, based on certain assumptions about ethics, integrity and morality were no longer understood in the world of contemporary politics, where such notions were treated in instrumental terms. But he never resigned from his principles and in his speech in Wroclaw in 2009 at the award ceremony for the Jan Nowak Jeziorański Prize, he confirmed his conviction that slušná politika is not only possible, but necessary. I am immensely grateful that I was able to meet Havel in Wroclaw. I lead him on a tour through Centennial Hall. He was accompanied by Adam Michnik, a man equally unbending in his moral convictions as Havel. I am also grateful that I could spend last Thursday evening in the company of Havel’s Polish, Slovak and Czech friends following the promotion of a new edition his essays in Polish. The great personalities of contemporary Poland leave gradually – Miłosz, Kołakowski, Geremek, Kuroń. We Czechs only have Havel, which makes the pain of our loss that much greater.

There is no way to replace Havel in my life. I look at the shelf where I keep the books he left us and I hold on to the hope that his departure from this world does not signal such tragic times as was the case in September 1937, when the first President of Czechoslovakia, the great humanist Masaryk, died. But it might be worthwhile to call on Seifert once again, who addresses Europe on the eve of WWII. In the last verse of his poem honoring Masaryk, Seifert writes: “Europe, Europe, when the bells start to ring, you should be the first to cry. Europe, terrible over swords and guns, in the light of the candles that were lit. Remember child, this grey morning.” I will remember.

To kalné ráno

Za sto let možná děti našich dětí

svým dětem budou teskně vyprávěti

o šedém ránu 14. září

navěky označeném v kalendáři.

To kalné ráno, to si pamatuj mé dítě.

Až ze všech nás budou už jen stíny,

či prach, jejž čas klást bude na hodiny

života příštích v ranním šeru

chvíle se ozve bez úderu.

To kalné ráno, to si pamatuj mé dítě.

Tu chvíli před půl čtvrtou ranní,

ten okamžik, a konec umírání,

když smrt se dotkla vrásek čela,

a ranní mlhou odcházela.

To kalné ráno, to si pamatuj mé dítě.

Evropo, Evropo, až zvony rozhoupají,

měla bys první být mezi těmi, ktoš lkají.

Evropo, hrozná nad meči a děly,

ve světle svící, jež se rozhořely.

To kalné ráno, to si pamatuj mé dítě.

Jaroslav Seifert 14.09.1937